Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Week 2: The Electric Chicken

As we wrap up week 2, I am happy to report that all 9 remaining chickens are alive and accounted for! Additionally, Brandon and I built the highlight of the week. It's a little something we fondly refer to as "The Electric Chicken," which is a portable chicken coop outfitted with electrical wire on the frame's exterior to keep predators (including my dog and cat) at bay. Before we built the The Electric Chicken we consulted with The Simmons since they've been backyard chicken farming for a few years now. With their advice, Brandon and I set out to put our construction skills to work.

Surprisingly, The Electric Chicken was much easier to build than I had imagined, and much cheaper as well since we had most of the scrap lumber and other supplies lying around. To start, we used 2 x 4's to make a 9 x 9 frame, complete with angled ends that would make it easier to pull around our yard. Brandon and I then bent two cow panels over the frame and secured the ends with fence staples. Once we stapled the panels to the frame, we braced the structure and closed up the open ends of the coop with chicken wire. Then we built a door so we could have access to the inside of the coop to change the chickens' feed and water each day. Lastly, we covered the panels with a tarp to give the chickens protection from the elements, primarily the sun and rain. All-in-all, I think we did a great job and my custom artwork really polished it off nice if I do say so myself!

According to The Simmons, The Electric Chicken is designed to hold somewhere around 50 chickens - much more than the 9 chickens I acquired a little more than two weeks ago. Looking at The Electric Chicken and the space available for approximately 50 broilers, I would say that what we have scooting around our yard doesn't offer much more space per bird than
a large-scale, conventional grower house. Typically, broilers are given a little less than 1 square foot per bird in modern broiler houses; however, most growers today determine stocking density by bird weight per unit area rather than amount of area per bird. This method has a few advantages, mostly that it allows the companies to keep stocking density and housing environment standards consistent despite differences growers may have in target end weights of their chickens they are contractually growing out.

Now, you may be asking yourself why there would be such differences in end weights when the poultry industry is known for its cookie cutter-like uniformity in broilers. Well, it happens and quite often - so here's a reason why. Many times birds that are purchased by companies like KFC or Popeyes are actually harvested sooner (say 5 weeks of age) than those that are sold in a retail store (say 6 or 7 weeks of age). This is because chicken outlets like KFC purchase their chicken by the pound, but sell their c
hicken by the piece, unlike grocery stores that buy and sell their chicken by the pound. Consequently, it is in KFC's, or any other chicken outlet's, best interest to purchase smaller birds since they will ultimately pay less for them. Hence, why growers may have differences in target end weights among broiler houses. But, back to the housing discussion.

Both within the industry and among animal rights circles, stocking density is a highly debated topic. We've all seen videos of grower houses that seem over-crowded, which raise welfare and animal health concerns among the viewing public. But, what we don't see or hear is the "why" behind these housing practices. Despite whatever stocking density a grower uses, be it less than 1 square foot per bird or 10 pounds of bird per square foot, producers and researchers have found that environmental conditions of the house play just as much of a role in chicken performance as does the amount of space those chickens receive. High broiler performance can be achieved in high stocking densities as long as there is adequate ventilation, temperature and humidity control, as well as feeder and waterer space. In today's modern broiler house, all of these factors are highly controlled, which allows for the stocking densities we see at most commercial facilities.

Additionally, when I toured the facility in Live Oak a couple weeks ago, one of the things the manager told me was that as producers improve and updat
e their facilities, they get paid more. This helps cover the producer's additional input cost as well as provides producers with an incentive to remain current with the latest housing designs. Most importantly, it allows the company to keep birds in conditions that will facilitate excellent health and rapid growth, despite high stocking densities.

Furthermore, most consumers don't realize that when you see these images of broiler houses you are usually seeing the conditions in the last week or so of production. The number of broilers placed in a house at a day of age is determined by the broilers' estimated harvest size or end weight. Although these birds do rapidly gain weight and reach their target end weights within a matter of weeks, it isn't until they are at the end of their grow-out period that the house reaches its specified stocking density.

Lastly, as with any business, operators are not going to make decisions that negatively effect the bottom line. The agriculture industry, and the poultry industry more specifically, will not adopt production practices that negatively effect the welfare of their animals. When animals are abused or kept in conditions that are stressful or harmful, they perform poorly - end of story. If stocking densities or other housing conditions that poultry were kept in - be it cages or coops - were inhumane or inhospitable, chickens would not grow and would stay sick at rates that would shut the industry down from economic losses. Chickens that have the ability to roam freely without the protection of some type of house would inevitably be eaten by predators or die from exposure to the elements just as they did years ago when most of our grandparents and great-grandparents were subsistence farmers raising chickens to feed their families.

And with that I'll get off of my soap box for the day, and go move The Electric Chicken to a new spot in the yard!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Week 1: Acquisition

So, I guess the first question is how did I get shacked up with 10 broiler (meat-type) chicks? Well, on Tuesday, June 29 John Michael and I traveled to Live Oak to a broiler hatchery and harvesting facility. We were there for a couple of reasons, but primarily to pick up some broiler chicks and fertilized eggs for our poultry lab section we would be coordinating that week. In this particular lab, students in the class would have the opportunity to see chicken embryos at various stages of development, candle eggs and grade them, incubate and hatch out the fertilized eggs as well as feather sex the day-old chicks we picked up that morning.

While at the facility, we had the opportunity to tour the hatchery before we picked up our cargo. It was absolutely fascinating! The first thing that surprised me was the size of the hatchery building, which wasn't nearly as big as I had imagined it would be since this facility is one of the few large-scale poultry facilities left in Florida. The facility we visited sources poultry for companies like Publix, Sam's Club, and Costco located within Florida, which requires them to hatch out over 1 million broiler birds each week! Despite this scale of production, the building itself was not what one would consider to be enormous nor did it have a plethora of employees working there. Such a situation is characteristic of many large-scale facilities in the poultry industry because, as a whole, the industry is highly integrated and produces an extremely uniform product. Combine that with the fact that handling a product as small as eggs and day-old chicks doesn't require a lot of infrastructure and wha-la! A facility smaller than I had imagined!

As we got out of the car and went to enter the building we walked through a sanitizing mat that works to keep out any contaminants someone might carry into the building on the bottom of their shoes. We then visited with the hatchery manager for a few minutes, and then moved into the break room where we were given one-size-fits-all biosecurity coveralls and shoe condoms - I looked DEAD SEXY if I do say so myself - just check me out! These suites are just one of the many precautions such a facility would take to keep foreign materials or diseases at bay, especially since the little fellas we would be visiting were so young and therefore extremely susceptible to pathogens.

One of the othe
r ways the facility worked to protect the embryos and day-old chicks were through vaccinations. Each chick is given two vaccines while at the hatchery - a respiratory vaccine while it's still an embryo in the egg and a coccidiostat on the day that they hatch, before they are sent to the grower houses. For birds that qualify for natural programs like Publix's Greenwise brand, this is all the health product those chicks will ever receive throughout their lifetime.

Watching the embryo vaccinations was utterly amazing - the fact that an engineer can design a machine that will vaccinate 100 plus eggs at a time without damaging the developi
ng embryo or cracking the shell is mind boggling to me. In addition, this same machine scanned each egg and recorded which eggs were fertilized and which were not fertilized. This allowed the hatchery to conserve valuable vaccine as well as keep a running record of how well each breeder's flock was producing. Such information becomes valuable to the company as they track each chick from hatch to harvest, collecting production information like hatch rates and feed conversion ratios, which directly impact their bottom line and help them make future breeding decisions.

Once the birds have hatched, they are taken out of the incubator, sexed, and prepared for shipment to a local grower. These growers are contracted to raise these day-old broilers for appr
oximately the next 6 weeks before harvest. Prior to shipment, the birds are given their coccidiostat vaccination, which is actually died red and sprayed onto them. Since this vaccine needs to be ingested, the red dye works to encourage neighboring chicks to nibble the vaccine off of the other chicks. It also made the yellow chicks a lovely shade of pink!

At the conclusion of the tour, we thanked the manager, packed up our recently hatched broilers and their unhatched counterparts for the drive back to Gainesville. Which leads me to answering the question as to why I now have ten of these broilers at my house in Newberry. Well, you see, at the conclusion of the lab on Wednesday we needed someone to take these fellas. With no students stepping up to the plate, and approval from the hubby, I took my newly acquired broilers home in a cardboard box. Armed with a light for heat, newspaper for make-shift bedding, a little feed and water, and a craving for chicken and rice, I drove home with ten biddies in my backseat.

Once home, I borrowed a brooder from my mother-inlaw and set-up the chicks in our shop by the house. I'm amazed at how fast these guys are growing, and their ability to eat, poop, and then pass-out before waking up to start the cycle all over again.....hmmmm
, sounds a lot like what some of my friends are about to get themselves into in about 9 months or so.

At the conclusion of this week, I removed the heat
lamp since they should have started gaining the ability to regulate their own body temperature, plus it's July in Florida. They've also started to put on white feathers at the tips of their wings and tail. Unfortunately, as with any agricultural endeavor, we had a casualty at the end of this week - so we are coming into week 2 with only 9 remaining chicks. So with the advice from our neighbors and fellow backyard broiler growers, the Simmons, hopefully we can get these remaining birds through the next 6-8 weeks - who's hungry for some fried chicken???


That's right - you heard it! Brandon and I - well mostly me - have ventured into the realm of growing backyard broilers. Why might you ask? Well, when the opportunity presented itself about a week ago I figured, "Why not?"

You see, I've grown up around the agriculture industry my entire life. As a result, I've pursued a career and graduate education learning about and teaching others about the how and why of their food production system in America. I spent the past few semesters and this summer assisting with the Introduction to Animal Science course at UF, where I've taught several lessons and labs related to the food animal industries I am most familiar with - beef, pork, and meats to be more specific. But, I've also spent quite a bit of time learning about the industries I'm not nearly as familiar with - such as the poultry industry. Call me a nerd, but I've really enjoyed learning about this industry - it's helped me better understand where my bag of frozen chicken breasts and dozen eggs I buy every month from Publix come from. But more importantly, it has given me some perspective on why the conventional broiler and layer industries do what they do so that I can be a more well-rounded and informed educator.

So with that, I thought I would take this opportunity to blog about both sides of the agriculture industry - large-scale, conventional production and backyard, small farms - using the information I have gathered over my lifetime and the experiences I have had raising food animals on my small family farm and now at my own home with my husband. I hope this can be a learning experience for any who come across this blog as well as any of my family and friends who can't kill all their time on Facebook.